New technology? No problem!

Reading the excellent post by Andy Tattersall, departing Chair of the CILIP Multimedia and IT Special Interest Group, I am struck not just by the transformation of our ‘digital landscape’ over the past 10 years, but how clearly it demonstrates that technology no longer moves in ‘generations’ or ‘hype curves’ but as an ongoing process of iterative change.

Leadership in a time of digital transformation was described to me last year by one tech sector leader as “trying to manage your way through a series of incomplete s-curves”. They meant that you can no longer wait for one set of technologies to stabilise or normalise prior to adoption – at any given moment, the next digital disruption is already underway.

Technology is the core business of librarians. It always has been. You can go back to any period in human history and there will be people seeking to harness the latest innovation – from cuneiform to block type to databases to knowledge graphs – to empower people to discover, create, access, use or share information.

Our skill is in being just far enough ahead to understand the capabilities and limitations of any given technology – the risks it poses and the new opportunities it presents. How it can be deployed in a way that is sympathetic to our core values and ethics. How it can be person-centred and built on a platform of well-structured, organised and properly-sourced knowledge. How it can integrate into or interface with what came before and how it fits into our long-term vision of harnessing technology to the purpose of universal improvement and empowerment.

The current generation of technologies – AI, machine learning, process automation, robotics – are exhilarating in their scale, ingenuity and capability. They suggest a future in which daily life is augmented and improved by unseen and adaptive tools. They also hold sufficient dystopian potential to ensure that we are continually vigilant about their abuse.

But they are also just another stage in a process, not an end goal any more than Web 2.0, or social media or the Internet of Things have been before them. The key thing is how we, literally as ‘information technologists’ or ‘technologists committed to empowering access to information’, ensure that we are always ready to help our organisations and users learn, adapt, embrace and benefit from them.

Our future success as a profession depends on our ability (and willingness) to greet each new wave of disruptive tech as an old friend, to welcome it in, accommodate it alongside all of the other tools at our disposal and help our communities get the most out of it.

And yet – despite the fact that exactly this kind of digital transformation is bread-and-butter for many librarians and information professionals in all sectors – that is not where we are perceived as being as a profession today.

For some reason, the perception (including in some cases the self-perception) of our profession is that it has got stuck – rooted in the idiom of the red brick building and the plastic-covered book. But those, too, were technologies that were of their time. The key thing is not to abandon them – space and physical interaction continue to be core to some types of service delivery – but to avoid becoming defined by them and therefore frozen in a moment in time.

Because our users are not frozen in time.

They may be nostalgic for a particular format or experience, but the daily reality in which the majority exist is one of connectivity, convenience and agency. There is always a lag – because libraries touch every life, everyone believes they are what they were when they first encountered them. If you grew up in a world of leather-bound books, that is a library to you for the rest of your life. If your studies were empowered by microfiche, then that’s what constitutes a ‘real’ library experience for you.

The challenge for us is to continue to support legacy technologies while always forging ahead to take advantage of the new. I am reminded of the extraordinary premises of the Society of Genealogists in London where each floor you ascend in the building takes you back 50 years in technology – digitisation in the basement, a front desk on the ground floor, microfiche one floor up, bound volumes on the next and so on. Presumably the incunabulae are in the attic!

But are we forging ahead today? It has been notable how little appetite there is in the library profession for training and CPD around the tremendous new opportunities and implications of data science. As a training provider and platform, we see first-hand how the demand remains stable for ‘traditional’ or ‘core’ library skills, but not for the newer proficiencies and skills in helping organisations maximise the safe, effective and legally-compliant use of data at scale.

We hear from employers how challenging it can be to invert the enquiry-desk model, asking information professionals and support staff to go to where users and learners are rather then asking the users and learners to come to a central point of interaction. Of course, the disruption of COVID has meant that many have now experienced what a user-centred distributed service looks like but responses seem too often to be defined by inertial resistance.

But if resistance becomes our brand in a digital age, then we really are in trouble. That is why I believe we need to adopt a mindset that says “New technology? No problem!” – that is constantly curious, optimistic and experimental about what technology can offer our users and how we can harness it to meeting their needs and ensuring their success.

That is not, by the way , to suggest that there aren’t problems with each new set of technologies. Each one has implications for our users, and carries with it the potential to cause harm as well as good, and so of course we need critically to assess these risks and ensure that we have covered them off, accounted for them and identified mechanisms for implementation and adoption that mitigate them.

But what we can’t do is get stuck in a ‘problematising’ mode, eternally circling the same potential risks without suggesting how they can be resolved. When I say “new technology? No problem!”, what I mean is “no problem, I will engage with it, find out about it, have a play around with it, assess the opportunities and risks and then enable the organisation and its users to deploy it safely and successfully!” (that just takes a lot longer to say).

“But isn’t that the role of the IT team?” I hear you say? Well, no. Most successful digital transformations aren’t centrally about the boxes, wires or code. They’re about how well the organisation understands its own needs and capabilities, about the culture and how it rewards curiosity and innovation, about understanding both the internal ‘information environment’ of the organisation (the information architecture, structure, strengths and weaknesses of its intellectual capital) and the external one (the wider context of content, regulation, licensing etc.).

But more than this, IT can help you deploy a specific technology, but the real magic – the thing that will ultimately secure the future of our profession over the coming century, is the attitude of mind that allows us to engage productively with all current and future technologies.

How do we do this? By understanding the continuum – that a contemporary corporate data lake is essentially the same thing as the tabulation of astronomical data in 7th Century Persia. That the future of quantum or DNA computing, Edge Computing -(or whatever future product emerges from them) is essentially just a configuration of the same key components – a carrier, a body of structured information, an interface, a set of processes or rules – that have defined all ‘technologies’ throughout history.

Our skill as information professionals lies in our ability to understand the implications of each new configuration and to organise them to the benefit of our users. Armed with this toolset, we should not be afraid of any new technology – because each time something new crops up, we can say “ah yes, I can see how this works, I can filter the hype from the reality, my information is already well-structured, I know how to support my users in engaging with it, I know how to apply the rules to our situation”.

Somewhere in the distant future, I would love to see us moving even from this responsive mode to something more proactive. Instead of greeting each digital disruption with “New technology? No problem!”, I would love to see more information professionals advising or leading technology firms – helping them to deploy ethical and responsible solutions that meet real needs (and to avoid the potential harms that we have seen emerging from the last crop of social platforms).

Because, at the end of the day – harnessing and designing technologies to maximise universal access to information, intellectual freedom and freedom of expression is our core business. And it always has been.

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